Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Homosexuality and Crossdressing

During the Second World War, Benito Mussolini's fascist government rounded up "degenerate" people, particularly homosexuals, and confined them in a series of camps around the country. One of the largest was on the island of San Domino, in the Tremiti chain, in the Mediterranean Sea northeast of Italy.

Mussolini was attempting to weed out these undesirable people, to keep the society pure and virile. And conditions for the prisoners were intentionally harsh. However, Mussolini unwittingly created a homosexual paradise, doing the prisoners the favour of confining a large group of them to a beautiful island together for the duration of the war.

Hello, sailor!
This episode is not widely known. I had never heard of it until I read about it on the BBC, and you can read the article here written by Alan Johnson. In turn, the article comes from a book, The Island and the City, by Gianfranco Goretti and Tomasso Giartosi. I have searched for the book and it doesn't seem to exist in English. I assume this is a translation of the Italian title. In any case, what follows is all quoted from Johnson's BBC article:
"We were curious because they were called 'the girls'," says Carmela Santoro, an islander who was just a child when the gay exiles began to arrive. "We would go and watch them get off the boat... all dressed up in the summer with white pants - with hats. And we would watch in awe - 'Look at that one, how she moves!' But we had no contact with them."

What this meant to the exiles was explained in a rare interview with a San Domino veteran, named only as Giuseppe B - published many years ago in the gay magazine, Babilonia - who said that in a way the men were better off on the island.

"In those days if you were a femminella [a slang Italian word for a gay man] you couldn't even leave your home, or make yourself noticed - the police would arrest you," he said of his home town near Naples. "On the island, on the other hand, we would celebrate our Saint's days or the arrival of someone new... We did theatre, and we could dress as women there and no-one would say anything."

And he said that of course, there was romance, and even fights over lovers. Some prisoners wept, Giuseppe said, when the outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to the end of the internal exile regime on San Domino, and the men were returned to a kind of house arrest in the places where they came from.
What struck me about this article is how miserable and difficult it must have been for anyone, during the War, who found themselves considered "degenerate" by society. The Brits were no better or more enlightened in their treatment of gay people. As long as he was cracking the Enigma cypher (and keeping his mouth shut), Alan Turing (one of my heroes) was allowed to work for the British intelligence services, and a blind eye was turned. However, after the War, Turing was persecuted for his homosexuality, forced to take huge doses of female hormones (as if that would cure him!) and eventually he took his own life, depriving us of his gargantuan intellect.

Vaudeville drag
But this article throws up some other interesting points. First, the Italians used the word femminella ("little girl") to describe gay men. Carmela Santoro uses female pronouns when describing the men ("How she moves!"). That's all very well. Our society uses the word sissy (a diminutive of "sister") and also uses feminine pronouns in a scornful, offensive manner when a man's masculinity seemingly fails to measure up. So we can tell little about the San Domino internees from what other people thought or said about them.

So what did they say about themselves? None of the San Domino internees are believed to still be alive, and the interview with Giuseppe B is very old. Giuseppe B says "We did theatre, and we could dress as women there and no-one would say anything". Gay men loving the theatre? What are the chances? (And Italians fighting over love? Who would have thought?)

The reason for this post is that I have been puzzling over the relationship between homosexuality and crossdressing for a few weeks now. I have lurked for some years on an academic LGBT forum. What I find surprising is how few T people there are. When I post comments about crossdressing (as I did this week, attempting to stimulate a debate on this subject) I am treated with polite tolerance, but no real engagement. On most of the topics (relationships, coming out at work, discrimination) I seem to have very little in common with the things which trouble or preoccupy them. On the other hand, I feel sure if I sat down among them with a glass of wine we would soon all be laughing and finding all sorts of common ground.

My question to them (and also to you) is this: what is the relationship between homosexuality and crossdressing? Is there one? Are they completely separate, or is there some sort of correlation?
Sister Act

I believe that, in past times, gay and lesbian people might have crossdressed as a means of making it more "acceptable" to have a same-sex partner. I could see how a gay man, brought up to believe that homosexuality was an abomination, might not be comfortable being affectionate towards another man, but might find it a lot easier if that man were fabulously dressed as a woman. In other words, for some of those people (as was the case for Billy Tipton and others), the crossdressing may have been the means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

As just one example,  Molly houses were establishments in 18th-century Britain where gay and crossdressing men would meet up for sex. Wikipedia writes:
Patrons of Molly houses formed a distinct subculture in Georgian England. They would take on a female persona, have a female name, and affect feminine mannerisms and speech. Marriage ceremonies between a Molly and his male lover were enacted to symbolise their partnership and commitment.
As a second example, let's return to Giuseppe B. In his words, the internees of San Domino sometimes expressed themselves by "dressing as women". Is that because some of them were not "ordinary" gays, but what we might recognise as transvestites, who were all lumped in together by the authorities? Or is it because the connection between gay men and crossdressing is closer than we think?


John Leguizamo as Chi Chi Rodriguez
It certainly seems to be true that the popular media lump crossdressing and homosexuality together. To take some examples, the Sean Bean drama Tracie's Story features a gay crossdresser who falls in love with a man; the romantic film Sweet November features two gay transvestites living together, who are the supportive best friends of the quirky female lead, Charlize Theron; the iconic road movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, features gay men in drag virtually all the way through, as does its remarkably similar counterpart To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. All these works feature gay men who are portrayed as powerful, subtle, interesting characters (not simply shrieking and pouting and prancing about), but crossdressing, or drag, is a central theme in each.

In modern Western society, surrounded as we are by openly homosexual politicians and clerics and academics and entertainers (even sportspeople), surely it is no longer necessary to crossdress to attract a same-sex partner? Therefore if gay and lesbian people want to crossdress, surely now they are doing it because they like it? This may be for the performance (as in gay drag), or it may be because they enjoy it for other reasons; perhaps the same reasons that I enjoy it.

In his documentary, Grayson Perry insists in front of the schoolboys that most transvestites are straight men. In this interview on the Huffington Post, journalist and academic Marcie Bianco states the same thing:
Bianco: The largest population of crossdressers that we see in the United States is that of the heterosexual male. Drag is almost a protic performance. They are very different, and to then map on lesbian and gay onto drag, that takes it elsewhere entirely. I don't view crossdressing as a kind of protic performance. I view it as a personal aesthetic that people do to please themselves, to please the person that they are with, I mean it could be a fetish, right? Those are different concepts, different ways of being, that I think need to be distinct.
Gay comedian Julian Clary
So what, if anything, has changed in the last couple of centuries? What does everyone else think? Here are a few perspectives from people who have been kind enough to put up with my pestering questions on the subject. Let's start with Helen Boyd, taken from my interview with her:
Boyd: There have always been gay men who have crossdressed, and it’s not always drag when they do. I assume it’s for similar reasons crossdressers do – some combination of scratching an itch, connecting to a feminine self, fabulousness, and sexuality.
Another one of my correspondents, a gay doctor, writes:
Having thought about it I think the question why do men (or men and women rather) cross-dress is almost as useful as asking why are some people gay? I'm sure there are multiple reasons, different reasons for different people, and it's all a spectrum anyway.

There are serious cross-dressers and occasional or faddy "passing phase" cross-dressers. There are gay cross-dressers and straight cross-dressers. There are those certain of their sexuality and those thrown into doubt by a passing experience of it. I'm not convinced by the autogynephilia theory. It may explain some guys I've no doubt, but it doesn't explain why a gay house music club in London I went to a couple of years ago had some sensational looking cross-dressed dancers gyrating on a podium in the middle of the dance floor full of sweaty gay men. I don't think many of those men were there to get turned on by someone in women's underwear, but they were there to be entertained and have fun.

I think the answer lies in a sense of otherness - of the exotic, outre and titillating. It's different - the opposite of straight and conservative and an expression of the ultra different and liberal. I'm reminded of Cabaret and inter-war Berlin. And it's fabric on the skin that to a man is unusual, strange and soft feeling. And a bit of a laugh. It's naughty. And not to be over-analysed.

I'm sorry if I sound like I'm belittling the topic. I'm not meaning to, but all I'm trying to say is that I don't think it's easily analysable. I think it's often just done for a bit of fun, to prove you're not mainstream, to mess around. But I'm sure different people do it for different reasons, and I'm sure there's a transsexual overlap. But it seems a bit like trying to analyse why gay people are gay!!
Molly, a transgendered woman, writes:
I don't know any gay men who used cross dressing as an entry path to being gay.  I do know a few gay men who have cross dressed from time to time, usually on Hallowe'en or a special event, more for a lark, usually more drag than realistically, and in any event not as part of the social life or their primary relationships.  Doesn't rule it out, just not something I have heard of. It just isn't what it means to be gay.  Gay is about sexual attraction and most gay men are very secure in their gender.  I do know at least one gay man who discovered over time he was trans but it was a very slow, evolutionary process and he was ostracized by his gay friends for a time because of it.  Gay men can be as gender binary as female spouses.
And Janice, another transgendered woman, writes:
About a year ago I was testing the waters, so to speak, and was talking to a gay friend of mine at work about cross-dressing. He got very angry and told me he just couldn't understand why any man would want to put on a dress. I thought, mistakenly, that since he was gay that he would be more understanding and since we are good friends that he would be someone I could come out to.  I was wrong and I dropped it right there.
I must say that I am not really much further forward. I have asked a lot of people what they think, and they seem to think it's not really important. Perhaps it isn't! Perhaps I am just over-thinking it. Comments and perspectives are welcome!

===

My thanks to Tasi Zuriack of Sister House for drawing my attention to the Huffington Post interview.
My further thanks to Janice for reminding me about The Birdcage, another wonderful movie which reinforces the stereotype of the crossdressing gay man.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Detransitioning

Detransitioning is the process whereby someone post sex reassignment surgery, living as the opposite sex, regrets their decision, and returns to their original sex. It's hard to know how common it is for sure, since reports vary widely. Wikipedia reports a 2009 review article reporting it may be as high as 8%. For some in the trans world, it's an uncomfortable subject.

The oldest example may be Tiresias, a mythical blind Greek prophet. The story goes that he was changed into a woman by Hera as punishment for striking two copulating snakes with his staff. Tiresias's powers of prophecy were unaffected, and she lived successfully as a woman, including marrying and having children, before being turned back into a man after the (mythologically significant) seven years.

But mythology is all very well. What about reality?

Samantha Kane
Born in 1950 in Iraq, Sam Hashimi was always different as a boy. When he could, he dressed in girls' clothes, and even had sex with other boys. He moved to the UK at the age of 16, and grew up to become very successful. He married a woman in 1984 and had two children. His business thrived and he became a millionaire.

He announced his gender dysphoria to his wife, and she soon divorced him. He went on to spent £100,000 on a series of operations to make him into Samantha Kane, culminating in sex-reassignment surgery in 1987. Samantha Kane was glamorous and attractive (the "ultimate male fantasy"), and enoyed a jet-set lifestyle as an interior designer in London and Spain.

However, after a few years Samantha began to regret her decision to transition. She disliked the way oestrogen made her feel emotional and moody. No matter how feminine she looked, she felt she was merely playing a role.
Kane: In fact, I found being a woman rather shallow and limiting. So much depends on your appearance, at the expense of everything else. I wasn't interested in shopping. My female friends would spend hours shopping for clothes, trying on different outfits. But having been a man I knew exactly what would suit me and appeal to men. I could walk into a shop and be out again in five minutes with the right dress. Nor have I ever been interested in celebrity magazines or the things that interest other women, but when I tried to talk to men about blokey things they didn't take me seriously.
Samantha Kane was engaged to a wealthy property owner, but the relationship collapsed, ostensibly because he did not consider her to be a "real woman".

So in 2004, Kane spent a large sum of money on further surgery, and returned to being a male, Charles Kane. He has reconciled with his son, and has found a new, female partner, Victoria. You can read a 2010 interview with the couple here.
Kane: I feel very philosophical, rather than bitter about what happened to me. Based on my own experiences, I believe sex-change operations should not be allowed, and certainly not on the NHS. People who think they are a woman trapped in a male body are, in my opinion, completely deluded. I certainly was. I needed counselling, not a sex-change operation. In many ways I see myself a victim of the medical profession.
Ria Cooper
Kane's story is not unique. Ria Cooper, the UK's youngest sex-change patient, was accepted for transition at the age of 17, but after less than a year, came to regret the decision. He has stopped the hormone treatment, and cancelled the sex-reassignment surgery. He says he suffered such torment living as a woman that he tried to take his own life twice. Currently Cooper sees his identity as a "trendy gay man". Somewhat disturbingly, the newspaper article suggests he is going to pursue a career in the forces. I predict it won't go well if he does. (Ironically, Cooper's birth name is Bradley).

Here is an articulate and powerful account of one person's detransition. The author is himself a doctor.
If I could only go back to the day before my surgery in March of 2005 -- I would run from that surgeon’s knife. I have lived and worked as a surgically altered man trying to play the part of a woman for six years. I spared no expense at trying to make it work. In fact, I spent an estimated $250,000 on various surgeries, and probably at least that amount in clothing and accessories. I took estrogen in every conceivable form. In return, I lost my lucrative job, my family, my social standing, and vital body parts. All for the sake of being true to myself—how tragically laughable.
It's well worth reading that essay all the way through; the bitterness is palpable.

When I started researching this article, I found much more than I expected to on this subject. As sometimes happens, this subject was intended to be a footnote to a different post, and has become a whole post by itself.

Many people who have detransitioned are vocal and angry, such as the author of this blog. There are support groups out there, such as this one. What strikes me about Kane is that, although he admits transitioning was a mistake, and asserts he is not bitter, he has come to think that surgical transitioning should never be permitted; that instead people should be counselled. What further strikes me is that he did not change back from Samantha Kane to Sam Hashimi, but instead into somebody new, Charles Kane, keeping that surname. Does this imply that his original dysphoria wasn't with his gender, but perhaps with his persona? I cannot possibly say.

Some commentators on the blogosphere have suggested that Kane did not spend enough time getting to know what it means to be a woman; that if he had, he would have found real contentment, instead of seeking to detransition. And it is absolutely certain that transition is an enormous life event; a rebirth, a renewal of you as a person, which must create enormous emotional, as well as physical, stress. I completely understand people who think: have I really done the right thing? Am I going to regret this? (I felt the same the last two times I bought a house!) On the other hand, I have it in their own words, and I believe that both of these people think that transitioning was ultimately wrong for them, and it looks to me like both of them gave it their very best shot.

Walt Heyer
Some of the links and articles I have found have come from this website, SexChangeRegret, which is maintained by Walt Heyer, a man who transitioned and later detransitioned. Heyer has written books about this subject, and also keeps a blog here. Heyer has become an advocate against sex reassignment surgery, and argues against it on television and in print.

On the other hand, there is a wonderfully balanced discussion here on this blog, Third Sex. I commend you to read the whole article, which is sensible, insightful and sympathetic. Diana writes:
Detransition is not bad, or inherently negative. If someone is detransitioning because they made a terrible mistake, that is obviously horrible, and I wish that person the best for their mental, physical, and spiritual health. But it seems to me that many others experience detransition as a more fluid change in their gender identity. Perhaps it is not common, but I do believe that gender is varied and that as people we are constantly changing. The idea that one transitions to the other sex today, never to traverse the bounds of gender again - is absurd.
The reality is that some people detransition. And I think a lot of us are scared that we could do that one day, and that this decision is wrong for us, too. The easiest way to combat that insecurity is to look at it in the face, and answer the question yourself, today. Personally, I had to address where that insecurity came from. Was it indeed from a part of myself that knew the real truth about who/what I was? Rather than denying the existance of detransition and writing those who detransition off as anything negative - we ought to acknowledge and accept this experience. Our own realities are not validated or invalidated by that of someone else. My transition is not harmed or hindered by anyone. I am in control of where I take my body, and why.
For me, I think what this subject boils down to is this: what did Sam Hashimi, and the anonymous writer above, tell their doctors before the surgery? And how could those doctors be expected to differentiate them (educated, articulate, informed) from others, for whom transition is the right choice?

I believe surgical and hormonal transition is the right choice for some people. But I don't believe it is for everyone.

If we take a group of men who request sex change, a line needs to be drawn across that group, into some people who are suitable to have it done, and some who are not. If we draw that line strictly, fewer operations will be performed. Only those who are absolutely suitable will have the surgery, and detransitions will be fewer, but some people who yearn for transition (and might be fine afterwards) will be denied it.

If we draw that line more permissively, more operations will be performed. Fewer people will be denied transition, but here is the most important point. Inevitably, some people will transition who will come to regret that decision.

There is a very important discussion to be had on exactly where that line should be drawn, and what criteria are used to judge who falls on either side of it; including how old you need to be to make the decision rationally about whether or not to try to cross it. See this article for a more detailed discussion of one way this might be handled.

I wish you all a wonderful 2014.

===

Addendum: 26th January 2014

My thanks to Laura who drew my attention to Don Ennis, who transitioned and detransitioned within a very short time, citing a case of transient global amnesia as his reason. Ennis' case has not been widely reported in the media, perhaps because he is himself a senior figure at ABC News. However, there is no shortage of scornful articles about him out there, and I must admit his excuse sounds pretty flimsy to me.